How to Talk About What You Do

Austin L. Church
November 9, 2015
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“What do you do?” is a question that we’ll hear 10,000 times over the course of our lives. Maybe you're like most people and don't know how to talk about what you do.Most people answer the question with the name of their title or profession, then qualify it in one of two ways:

  1. They either describe how they spend their time, or
  2. They describe what happens for their customers.

An attorney might say, “I’m an attorney. I consult with people who are starting new companies and help them create and file all the necessary legal documents.”The same attorney might also say, “I’m an attorney. I help startup founders understand the difference between different entity structures like an LLC and a C-Corp. New companies have unique needs, so I ensure that the structure they choose will meet their short- and long-term needs. I try to keep the process as clear and straightforward as possible, and I usually partner with a CPA. That way, my clients can minimize their tax liability from the get-go. I could sum it all up this way: I help new businesses create the right foundation and structures to support their growth and minimize taxes and risk.”Responses like the first one are more common. The second one is more interesting. It better communicates the value of the attorney’s work. She could do even better by reframing this value proposition as a story—“For example, a new client came to me with…”.

"No one really cares."

Maybe the thought of describing your work in terms of benefits and outcomes causes you to squirm. You’re not alone. I think we shy away from the idea because we’re taught that no one really cares. Acquaintances ask polite questions because that’s what social etiquette dictates: How do you know So-and-So? Where did you grow up? What do you do?

How to Answer “What do you do?”

Taking polite questions for what they are, we counter with canned responses. And we make our work sound more boring than it really is.Before we move on, I want to highlight another layer of this social dynamic. We’re to assume that no one really cares, and we’re to believe that it’s tacky to talk too much.You don’t want to be that self-absorbed guy who corners Sarah’s old high school friend Kelli and flaps your jaw for an hour. Gauche. Tacky. Socially awkward.

Keep it short

Talk about What You Do

Photo Credit: Pal-Kristian Hamre via FlickrWe’re all too eager to pin shameful labels on ourselves. Or to be more precise, we set up this imaginary gauntlet we must navigate in order to escape said labels.Five minutes into a conversation, internal dialogue kicks in the door and blows the whistle on us: “All she wanted was another drink. So let’s not hold her hostage in the kitchen with stories about the boss’s bad taste in blazers or the office manager’s farting dog, which she brings to work every day. Okay, pumpkin? Keep. it. short.”With haste, you tie off your side of the conversation. Kelli meets your mind-numbing description of being a graphic designer with an equally colorless response: “Nice. I know some graphic designers.”(Phew. That was a close one.)Relieved that you haven’t made some social gaffe, you lunge at your chance, volley the question back, “What about you? What do you do?”

Give people a chance to care.

For chronic overanalyzers like myself, talking about our work is often like an invisible tennis match. We spent half our time wondering if our butt cheeks are hanging out of our tennis skirts.Though I generally buy into a “There you are!” instead of a “Here I am!” approach to relationships, I still think we shortchange ourselves and resign ourselves to Dull.Don’t ever underestimate how much people will care if you give them the chance.We default to unspirited conversations because we haven’t taken the time to think of compelling answers to questions about our work. Or maybe you’re different. Do you have a clear sense of what makes your work interesting?

Think about what makes you different.

You'll benefit if you take the time to brainstorm 5 to 8 key differentiators and write your value proposition.(Did he just say, “Value proposition”? Talk about a conversation killer!)Bear with me for a second. Grab another cup of coffee if you must. By focusing on how your work impacts others, how it improves, enriches, adds value to their lives, you’ll have stumbled upon a sort of social catnip.Have you ever asked a friend of a friend about her work, seen her face light up, and subsequently lost interest in the conversation? Of course not. Enthusiasm is attractive. Passion is infectious. In fact, passion is irresistible.

9 Questions to Help You

By emphasizing positive outcomes that your work makes possible, you run the risk of being likable, memorable, inspiring.A casual question about what you do is an opportunity to inspire another human being. Make the most of it.Carve out an hour on a Saturday or Monday morning, and brainstorm answers to these questions:

  1. What is the single biggest, loudest benefit that you provide your clients or customers?
  2. How would your three best clients talk about what you do? How and why are their lives better as a result of working with you? Pick up the phone, and ask. Seriously. Quit being a chicken, and pop the question.
  3. What would your closest friends say you’re really good at?
  4. When have you felt most satisfied with your work? Think of three stories, and tease out connections between your efforts and tangible results or improvements.
  5. Are there any particular tasks or projects that cause you to get so tuned in and hyper-focused that you lose track of time? List them.
  6. If I asked you to brag to me about your accomplishments, what would you brag about? What rises to the surface, whether big or small?
  7. Have clients emailed you to say thank you? Dredge up those emails, and write down the words and phrases that make you feel good.
  8. What do you most enjoy about your work? Is there anything you feel guilty about getting paid to do because you enjoy it so much?
  9. I saved my favorite for last: who do you want your clients to become?

Rough Draft of Wunderbar's Value Proposition

I love the challenge of coming to understand a new business. I love helping executives and entrepreneurs identify, diagnose, and solve problems associated with operations, process improvement, product development, culture, and sales & marketing.As I listen, I might sense frustration, discouragement, or even resignation. I might hear passion that has been dammed up by limiting beliefs, attitudes, relationships, and circumstances.And I might see latent potential. I might see potential for health and harmony instead of toxicity. I might see a wildly profitable business that can offer a livelihood to more people. I might see more freedom for the executives to care for themselves and invest time in other pursuits, such as painting, travel, and philanthropy.With sensitivity, I can work to clear out all the detritus that tends to build up around a real core problem. I ask a lot of questions. I shine a light on unvalidated assumptions. I capture desires and goals, and as I take notes, I repeat back what I’m hearing so that my clients can, in turn, hear what they have been telling themselves. Some of it is true. Some of it isn’t. My aim is to restore hope and a definite sense of purpose.Consulting feels more like play than work to me. (Just don’t tell my clients that.)One of my clients told me back in September that I’m like a business therapist. I listen hard, and then cut to the core of the issue. I bring clarity.That conversation was apropos because I sold the Bright Newt brand and app portfolio back in April. I needed to choose a new name for the consulting side of my business, and thus found myself in a position I hadn’t been in six years.I chose the name Wunderbar, and I’ve been mulling over the high-level branding and positioning. What makes me special? How does my involvement benefit my clients? The phrases “bring clarity” and “draw out latent potential” have connected the dots between dozens of client projects. That’s what I do. That’s what Wunderbar represents.

How we create value changes over time.

As you ponder your value and your brand, don’t miss the forest for the trees. The job you get paid to do right now may not be how you deliver the most value.Maybe you offer graphic design services right now. But over the next couple of years, you may realize that you really excel at taking clients through a brand recalibration process. Design was just the end product of deeper artistry.Maybe you refer to yourself as a “video guy.” But six months from now, a client tells you what your :30 second explainer video really meant for his company: “You developed effective strategy and fun content that dramatically shortened the sales cycle for our SaaS product.” Once you overhaul your branding and positioning and make it clear that your involvement helps to shorten sales cycles and generate more revenues, you can attract better clients and charge a premium beyond the reach of “Video Guy.”Allow me to state the obvious: how we create value changes over time as we gain new experience, knowledge, and skills. Our understanding of our personal and professional aptitudes evolves over time.We often can’t see this progressive revelation the same way we can’t see our noses. Your value proposition is your nose. To see all of it, you may need someone else to hold up a mirror. Outside perspective helps us get our hands on an authentic, spring-water clear value proposition.


Now back to parties: a strong value proposition makes you a better party guest. It also sets you up to attract better clients and make more money.In closing, here is what I want you to know about my consulting work with Wunderbar: I help entrepreneurs and executives find the clarity they need to address their most important challenges and to build profitable companies. When I do my work well, they are proud of theirs.What do you do?+++If you found value in this blog post, please sign up for my weekly newsletter. I’ll send you more posts as I publish them.